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A citizen petition is Oklahoma’s best chance to raise the minimum wage

The minimum wage was established in 1938 to give workers fair pay for their labor. Yet, the value of the minimum wage hasn’t kept up with the rising cost of living, leaving many working families in poverty. Today, 28,000 Oklahomans make the federal minimum wage of $15,080 per year or less. This isn’t enough to live on—even in Oklahoma.

While state lawmakers have not raised the minimum wage—even passing legislation preventing changes to local minimum wage laws—four other politically conservative states have passed minimum wage hikes through citizen petitions in recent years. A citizen petition may be low-income workers’ best chance to establish a livable, minimum wage.

Initiative petitions allow citizens to create, change, or strike down state laws by gathering signatures to put a proposal to a statewide vote.  Oklahoma was the first state to include a process for initiative petitions in its original constitution.

Oklahomans have been filing fewer petitions in the last few decades, but the petitions that have reached the ballot have had a better chance of passing.  From 1908 to 1978, citizen petitions that reached the ballot passed and became law at roughly 24 percent. From 1979 to July 2018, nearly 50 percent of citizen initiatives have passed, including three of the four on the ballot in 2016 and 2018.

States as conservative as Oklahoma have raised wages through citizen petitions. In 2014, the same year Oklahoma lawmakers banned any cities or counties from raising the minimum wage, four other Republican-controlled states succeeded in using citizen initiative petitions to raise their minimum wages above the federal level of $7.25 per hour.  Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota all voted to raise their wages to at least $8.50 per hour.

While Oklahoma Representatives Jason Dunnington (D-OKC), George Young (D-OKC) and Scott Inman (D-Del City) have each introduced legislation to raise the minimum wage in recent years, the dismissal of their proposals indicates that a citizen petition may be the state’s best bet for enacting a fair and living wage.

Oklahomans deserve to be paid adequately and fairly for the work they perform. The period between 2007 and 2018 is the longest without a minimum wage increase since the first federal minimum wage law was created eighty years ago.  Meanwhile, the cost of living has continued to rise. As a result, the minimum wage is worth less today than it was in 1968 when adjusted for inflation. Today, a full-time minimum wage worker can’t even afford a two-bedroom apartment at the fair market rate anywhere in the U.S.

Furthermore, research from past minimum wage increases shows that a raise creates a ripple effect that positively impacts workers making up to 150 percent of the minimum wage. This means that even though minimum wage workers in Oklahoma represent only 3.1 percent of the state’s workforce, a minimum wage increase would benefit thousands more workers.

Oklahoma’s state motto declares “work conquers all things.” We should reward workers for their labor, not punish them with sub-standard wages that leave them locked in poverty. Low-income Oklahomans are producing more but getting paid less for their important contribution to our state’s economy. Considering the recent successes of citizen petitions and the lack of action from state leaders, Oklahomans of all economic backgrounds should support a citizen petition to raise the minimum wage.

Deon Osborne is an intern with Oklahoma Policy Institute.

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